Confronting an Elderly Parent’s Bad Driving

When should I take the car keys away from my elderly parent? I can tell that my father's vision, hearing, and reflexes aren't what they used to be. That's not to mention that he's had a few dangerous near-misses on the road just recently. The older he gets, the more responsible I feel to protect his safety and make important decisions like this for him. What do you think I should do?

Knowing precisely when it’s time to ask your elder to surrender his driving privileges is not an exact science. Many seniors are able to operate a car safely into their eighties and beyond. Most will voluntarily adjust their driving habits when they realize that they’re having problems – for example, when cataracts start affecting their night vision. But what about those who no longer show this kind of discernment? It can be traumatizing for a caregiving son or daughter to have to deal with a parent who falls into that category. It’s also potentially devastating to the loved one. After all, most seniors associate driving with mobility, freedom, and human contact. If that privilege is taken away, it can mark the beginning of social isolation and total dependence on others to meet physical and transportation needs. It’s a chilling thought for any adult.

Before you jump to your worst-case scenario, there are some factors you’ll want to take into account as you evaluate your dad’s fitness to drive. For instance, is it possible that his driving habits are being affected by a short-term emotional disturbance, such as the death of a spouse or friend, a change in circumstances, or absentmindedness brought on by stress? If so, you may not need to do anything drastic at this point in time. Instead, simply suggest that he let someone else do the driving until things settle down.

If, on the other hand, you see a chronic pattern developing of traffic violations or accidents, you can probably conclude that your father is becoming a dangerous driver. In that case, you need to face the fact that it’s time to confront the issue. You should also pay close attention to any problems in the following areas:

    • Loss of hearing acuity. Does your father react to honking horns, screeching tires, emergency sirens? If not, have him tested for hearing loss. You might also insist on refresher driving classes designed specifically for the deaf and seniors.


    • Loss of visual acuity. Impaired contrast sensitivity (the ability to detect sharp borders and lighting changes) can make it difficult to see road dividers and other road markings. It can also make night driving or driving on extremely bright days very difficult. Have your dad’s eyes checked and fitted for tinted lenses or a visor. Limit driving to times when vision is least likely to be impaired.


    • Chronic diseases and physical impairment. If arthritis, muscle degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, or other physical limitations are affecting your loved one’s range of motion or his ability to respond in an emergency situation, enroll him in a class for disabled drivers.


    • Diseases that affect cognitive abilities such as memory, judgment, and understanding. According to the National Motorists Association, conditions like Alzheimer’s disease account for the majority of accidents caused by elderly drivers. Alzheimer’s patients shouldn’t be allowed to drive.


  • Medications. Know the side-effects of your father’s medications (drowsiness, slowed motor skills, watery eyes, etc.). Talk to his physician about which meds may affect his driving skills. Understand how his various medications are likely to interact.

If you think the time has come to suspend your dad’s driving privileges, do some research before bringing up the subject with him. Locate agencies that provide transportation for seniors. Find out if there are city buses or trains that he might be able to use. Get information on bus schedules, taxi fares, etc. Be prepared to ride the bus or train with him a couple of times till he feels comfortable with these new ways of getting around. Remember, the flip-side of a decision to take the keys away is that you may be required to adjust your schedule to accommodate your elder’s transportation needs.

When the moment of truth arrives, resolve to talk to your father reasonably and respectfully about his options. Don’t be condescending. Don’t treat him as if he were a child. Introduce the subject gently: for example, “Dad, it seems to me that you have a hard time making out the lines on the road. Sometimes you even cross into oncoming traffic. Would you say that’s true?” Then you can add, “We all love you, and we want you to be with us for a long time. And we sure don’t want you to hurt somebody else accidentally. Maybe it’s time we looked at other transportation options. What do you think?”

If that doesn’t work, you may have to lay it on the line: “Dad, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to give me your car keys.” At this point there may be tears, protest, and anger. But don’t let this intimidate you. As one who cares and sees the situation objectively, you are responsible for ensuring the safety of your loved one – and other people on the road. If you don’t, the consequences could be far worse than the temporary pain of having to take away a set of car keys.

If you’d like to discuss this matter with a member of our staff, feel free to call our Counseling department. Our trained counselors would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone if you think that might be helpful.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Caring for Aging Parents

Loving Your Parents When They Can No Longer Love You

Caregiver Action Network

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Elderly Care



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